Fernando Alonso just can’t get enough of the thrill of traveling at speed. That goes for both two wheels as well as four.
After stepping away from Formula One in 2018, the two-time world champion is back this season, on a familiar team – formerly known as Renault, but now racing under the new name Alpine.
A recent cycling accident in Switzerland left him hospitalized and requiring two metal plates to fix a broken jaw, but the Spaniard remains on track for his F1 return.
“I still love cycling,” Alonso told CNN’s Amanda Davies as he reflected on his collision with a car while out on a training ride. “I will probably have to use the mountain bike a little bit more now, on different trails and avoid the normal roads.
“Maybe, the car could be more scared now than before!
“But in a way, it will not change much. My preparation will be based on a bicycle always.”
Alonso concedes that he has been lucky, considering the timing of the accident, to recover in time for the new season, and as he looks back on a long career across three teams – Renault, McLaren and Ferrari – he’s also aware just how fortunate he’s been in his life.
“I feel very privileged,” he said. “I know many, many talented drivers. They don’t have even the opportunity sometimes to test a Formula One car in their career.
“I was lucky to choose when to change teams. I was lucky when to stop Formula One. I’m lucky to choose one to come back.
“I had always the possibility to choose my own destiny in a way. So, let’s have fun now.”
Alonso’s return to motorsport’s elite division marks the first time a driver has had three separate stints with a single F1 team – 2003-06, 2008-09 and now from 2021 onwards. His contract with Alpine is for two years.
After leaving F1 in 2018, Alonso competed in the IndyCar Series, Le Mans’ 24-hour race and the Dakar Rally where he emerged unscathed from a crash when his Toyota Hilux flew through the air after hitting a sand dune in Saudi Arabia.
It’s no secret that Alonso wants to win the coveted “Triple Crown of Motorsport” – which consists of the Indy 500, Le Mans’ 24-hour race and the Monaco Grand Prix. He’s already won two of the three, with just the Indy 500 left to go.
“I was considered always like the F1 guy that was racing the Indy 500 and things like that,” said Alonso, who doesn’t feel much has changed in F1 since he sought new pastures.
“I’m more or less seeing the same people, same drivers. It’s basically all the same.
“And I think you have a memory of how to drive these cars, and after three or four laps, you immediately are comfortable with everything you’re feeling.”
‘The right message, right now’
While Alonso was away, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton set up a commission in the current world champion’s name to increase diversity in motorsport, while F1 launched the #WeRaceAsOne initiative, and with it a new Task Force to “increase inclusion in the sport.”
The scheme, which had been in the pipeline before 2020, has been expanded this year as part of F1’s Environment, Social and Corporate Governance policy as the sport addresses issues of sustainability.
Alonso says that “it is the right message, right now.”
“There are a lot of people not having an easy time right now in the world,” added the 39-year-old. “They see sport as a way of getting rid of all of those individual problems for two hours as they are in front of the television.
“While they are enjoying themselves at the same time, they see a complex community – because Formula One is not easy to get everyone to agree on something – on this, we are all agreed and on this, we are all united.
“That’s a very nice message I think, and a very important message for the sport.”
Current world champion Lewis Hamilton paired with Alonso at McLaren at the start of the Briton’s career in 2007, and asked if the Mercedes driver is the man to beat this season, Alonso replies: “Absolutely.”
“He’s a seven-time world champion. He’s the guy that has been dominating the sport in the last couple of years. They’ve been very strong. No sign of weakness at the moment in the last few years.
“Even if the regulations change a little bit into 2021, their package and experience should be enough to remain favorites.
“But, you know, Formula One is not exact mathematics sometimes. You have to cross the line first to win it. Let’s see how it goes.”
A new perspective
When he first drove in F1, Alonso was a precocious talent, becoming the sport’s then youngest ever champion in 2004 when he got the better of a dominant Michael Schumacher and the Ferrari team.
This time around Alonso – the winner of 32 Grands Prix – has over two decades’ worth of professional driving experience, and a new perspective on F1 following his first break from it in 18 years.
“You are in a small bubble all the time,” he said. “With your team, with your engineers, and maybe you lose a little bit the perception of the sport in general and the entertainment that you give every two Sundays to millions of people.
“I think being away two years and enjoying the race from the outside, maybe you can behave a little bit different here and embrace some of the activities that you give to the fans.
“You are willing probably more to put on a better show because you know how it feels from the outside.”
Alonso acknowledges that 2021 will be a “transition year” for Alpine as he aims for regular top 10 placements and a handful of podium positions.
However, “Alpine has big ambitions for the future,” adds Alonso, pointing to the coming change in regulations next year – F1 is due to introduce major aerodynamic changes in 2022 – as the team looks to ultimately feature on the podium as race winners.
And as he looks forward to the season’s first race – the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 28 – Alonso pauses to take a moment to remember how he felt 35 years ago as a kid in a go-kart for the first time, which he describes as “one of the best feelings of my life. “
Now back again on the F1 grid, Alonso says he hopes that he’s “back as a better driver, but also as a better show for the people.”